Wednesday, July 20, 2016
In the light of recent reports of violence against journalists coming out of South Sudan, Global Forum for Media Development interviewed Leon Willems regarding his opinion on the challenges facing journalists and the free press in conflict environments.

Given recent reports of hostilities against journalists in South Sudan, what are the implications for media workers, both local and international, working in volatile or conflict environments?

The last 15 years have seen a terrible increase in violence against foreign journalists around the world. As a result of that local journalists have become more and more important as stringers, experts, information sources, as well as researchers on the ground. For example, during the recent crisis in South Sudan the wires from AP and Reuters were coming out of Nairobi. Even though journalists were always in danger in war zones, now they are deliberate targets. More and more foreign correspondents are refraining from going into these war zones and the local staff, in such cases, are more likely to fall victim to violence, abuse, incarceration, and other humiliating experiences. The international media have focused mostly on the difficulties facing foreign journalists and have neglected to focus on attacks on local journalists. 

What are the barriers to the free flow of information in new or transitional democracies like South Sudan?

South Sudan is not a transitional democracy, it's a five-year-old country borrowing mechanisms from its northern neighbour on how to deal with civil society. South Sudan has recently issued the NGO Law that obliges NGOs, international and local, to supply the security services with lists of all their staff and money transfers abroad. It is very similar to the foreign NGO law of the Russian Federation and is very clearly targeted at the civil society and freedom of expression. Eight journalist were killed in South Sudan last year and the government has not initiated any investigation into it. It is supposed to be reporting these cases to UNESCO and telling them what kind of investigation has taken place. In the recent week, two journalists that I know of were killed, one was the cameraman of the state television and the other worked for a community radio funded by Internews.

Journalism in South Sudan today is under the extreme pressure and influence of the government, which is clamping down on anybody that provides bi-partisan views. Journalists have been literally told by spokespersons of the President and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA)  and by the President himself that they should report what he is saying and nothing else. There has been a very deliberate attempt to influence what is being disseminated as information in order to prevent the opposition from voicing its views. This has lead to a very deliberate and targeted attack on press freedom. 

What would you say is the media’s role in contributing to an intensification of conflict or stabilisation and peace?

I believe that it is a complex issue and should not be generalised. In principle I think it is the journalist’s duty to report the truth and nothing but the truth. However, the truth can, sometimes, be provocative, it can be problematic. The problematic issues that we are seeing today in South Sudan, especially in the recent week, are problems that are created by the people in power, and it is a journalist’s duty to report that. The media also have a positive function. It can report the truth, disseminate the realities of life and give voice to people who are asking their leaders to stop fighting. Many of the media actors in South Sudan are currently working under very difficult constraints of press freedom, yet they are trying to give voice to citizens and community leaders who are asking for a ceasefire. Given the incredible problematic access to information situation, radio is one of the important means of dissemination of news.

The recent fight last week took place in the capital Juba, for some people Juba is 500-600 kilometers away. So a lot of people in the rest of the country depend on very sparse information about what is going on in Juba. There are differences of opinion and distrust across ethnic divides, between opposition forces, government forces, militias, and citizens. So it is important to agree to a ceasefire and to disseminate a call for calm and in that sense the South Sudanese media have done its work. One of the major challenges of the modern world is to deal with the effect of social media. On social media, there are deep emotions and personal feelings that are expressed. They come from traumatised experiences of people who have seen their neighbours shot, houses looted, and they want to blame someone for it, and that requires a considered response. Journalists should do their task of reporting the truth, whether people like it or not and voice the concerns of the citizens who are suffering from violent conflict.

Can you please tell us more about the work done by Free Press Unlimited in South Sudan?

Free Press Unlimited has been working on the capacity building of journalists and media producers over the last 10 years. Our activities fall into two categories. Firstly, we support radio drama production and magazine production in education, peacebuilding, reconciliation, focusing on refugees and people at risk. Throughout South Sudan there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people mostly belonging to opposition forces and ethnicities that are in civilian camps protected by the United Nations and they faced grave danger this past week. They have been deliberately attacked. There is a lot of work that we do with regard to reconciliation and peacebuilding at the citizen level by drawing attention to the people at risk.

Secondly, we support Radio Tamazuj, which is broadcasting out of exile. It is a journalism project, reporting about the political, social, and human dimensions of the conflict. In recent days, Radio Tamazuj website audience has been quadrupled to more than 100,000 visitors per day. It shows the need for independent news and that local media are hampered in their reporting. It also shows a clear indication that truthful journalism is needed in crisis.

Leon Willems    Leon Willems is Chairman of the Global Forum for Media Development and Director of Policy and Programmes of Free Press Unlimited.